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Sydney's picture-postcard image shattered by gun violence

In some suburbs, gun violence is so common that law-abiding locals fear getting caught in the crossfire. Kathy Marks reports from Sydney

SYDNEY // A single rifle shot shattered the daytime tranquility of life in the suburbs. Children playing in the street watched in horror as Joshua George was fatally wounded, allegedly by his friend, Graeme Smith, 21, with whom he had a fight at a party.

Shocking though last month's incident was, it was not unusual - not for the western suburbs of Sydney at least, where gun crime has become so common that law-abiding locals fear getting caught in the crossfire.

The rash of shootings has claimed nine lives in the past five months. George, 24, the father of a young daughter, was number eight. Two weeks later, Hussein Khanafer, 31, originally from Syria, was shot in the head in front of his wife and child.

More than 130 shootings took place in Sydney last year, most of them in the sprawling western suburbs where the acres of nondescript brick bungalows and soulless shopping malls are very different from the city's picture-postcard image. While some attacks were targeted, many were drive-by shootings in which homes and businesses were sprayed with bullets.

Turf wars between motorcycle gangs and other organised criminal groups are behind some of the incidents, say police. But they also warn that young men without gang links have begun arming themselves to resolve disputes with roots as petty as an argument between two women in a supermarket.

Prime minister Julia Gillard last month ordered the justice minister, Jason Clare, to investigate how to make the suburbs safer. Mr Clare, who represents a western Sydney seat in the federal parliament, wants police powers to be strengthened through national anti-gang laws.

"I have got constituents with their streets being shot up while they are [lying] in bed or their kids are doing their homework," he told The Australian.

Last week, New South Wales police announced a new initiative to address gun crime, which the police commissioner, Andrew Scipione, described as the state's "number one problem". But news that it will be led by the force's Middle Eastern organised crime squad sparked anger in the Muslim community.

The squad was established following the 2005 riots in the beachside suburb of Cronulla where Muslim and non-Muslim youths fought for days, drawing international attention to surging ethnic tensions.

Keysar Trad, spokesman for the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils, said the squad's new assignment implied the problem was confined to one ethnic group when incidents have been also lined to Serbian and Samoan organised crime, as well as gangs or individuals with no particular affiliations.

A surge in illegal gun imports is said to be fuelling the violence. Legislation mandating longer sentences for firearms smugglers received initial government approval this month, mandating life sentences for people caught smuggling 50 firearms over a six-month period. Police had asked for a lower threshold of 15 to 17 guns.

Don Weatherburn, director of the state government's bureau of crime statistics and research, says hotheaded behaviour by "angry young men" is nothing new.

"Before this there were knives, and before that there were pub fights. The spectacle of young men being violent as an assertion of power is hardly specific to the 21st century. To me the big difference is the availability of firearms, in particular handguns."

Nick Kaldas, the deputy police commissioner of New South Wales, told Fairfax Media: "We are seeing guns used to settle the most trivial matters. Small debts, arguments over women, domestic tensions, road rage and minor property disputes."

One shooting incident took place following an argument about Syrian politics in a hairdressing salon; another after one man complimented another's wife at a wedding.

The drive-by shootings - in which hairdressing salons, nightclubs, tattoo parlours and even schools have been shot up, with one bullet narrowly missing a baby in a cot - are said by criminologists to be acts of bravado, or, in the case of gang feuds, warnings of worse to come.

They have residents spooked. In Punchbowl, a suburb which has experienced numerous shootings, a woman pushing a pram said: "You don't feel safe on the streets. We worry about stray bullets."


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